At this time last year, everyone was talking about Clemson’s defensive line.
The Tigers returned arguably one of the best defensive fronts in the history of college football. It’s a unit that produced four All-Americans in Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant and all four were taken in the 2019 NFL Draft, including three in the first round—Ferrell, Wilkins and Lawrence.
However, that was last year. This year, the defending national champions have four new starters up front, including two sophomores in defensive end Xavier Thomas and defensive tackle Jordan Williams. They also have true freshman Tyler Davis listed as a key reserve.
“Talking about the defensive line, those guys were a different breed,” safeties coach Mickey Conn said. “They were unbelievable leaders and players. They laid the groundwork and a blueprint for our team and for our players on how to lead.”
Where is Clemson’s leadership on defense going to come from this year?
The obvious candidate appears to be the secondary where senior safeties K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse man a unit that last year was maligned at times, especially for their performances against Texas A&M and South Carolina.
However, what a lot of media and college football analyst failed to mention are the other 13 games, especially in the postseason where they held Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Alabama to a combined 43-of-84 passing for 463 yards, 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
“We got a bunch of things said about us after the South Carolina game,” Muse said. “I thought we really proved ourselves against Pittsburgh. I think we kept them under a hundred yards passing, which is unheard of, in a championship-type game. That was really satisfying as a team. Building that into the Playoffs, doing what we did, a lot of guys coming out, having their come-out party, like Nolan Turner making that pick against Notre Dame, that was huge for him, being a confidence booster, putting different packages in. We really had all four of our safeties out on the field at the same time.”
Notre Dame’s Ian Book led the nation in completion percentage and passing efficiency prior to the Cotton Bowl, but he completed just 17 of 34 passes and was intercepted once for 160 yards in Clemson’s 30-3 win. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who threw just 4 interceptions the first 14 games last year, was picked off twice by the Clemson secondary in the national championship game, including one returned for a touchdown by returning corner A.J. Terrell.
As bad as people thought Clemson’s secondary was last year, the Tigers ranked third in the ACC in passing yards allowed (189.6), second in pass percentage defense (53.2), third in yards per attempt (6.4), third in touchdown passes allowed (13) and third in opponent’s overall passer rating (110.9).
“That’s just a big thing for us, just being able to have pride in our unit, just understanding that it’s not about what the outside media is talking about, it’s about what we have in our team, how we have our players, coaches, how we feel about each other,” Muse said. “If there’s a problem there, we’re going to handle it. Outside stuff, really doesn’t bother us. We know what we’re about, how we do things.”
It’s that confidence Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Conn are counting on to lead the defense this year.
“It needs to come from the back end this year,” Conn said. “We’ve got two, really four guys that have started at safety. When you are talking about Nolan, Tanner, K’Von and Denzel (Johnson). They’ve all started and have been major contributors. Now, I want to see them take that blueprint that those (DL) guys have laid out and lead in their own way, but in the same direction.”